I rather like a lot of Clem Ford’s writing, but this recent one really, really rang true. And I feel the need to comment and share.
(I should preface this by saying that most men I know / am friends with wouldn’t behave the way I am about to describe to you out of basic human decency, but there is a small but very distinct group of men who do. Second thing of note: this is not an entirely isolated example.)
January: Last night, after work, I was out having a quiet catch up wine in a city beer garden with my lovely friend K. I have known K since school; she is chic, fun and creative, with long long limbs and a gamine haircut – a stunning woman in and out. We chatted about Christmas, New Years, her newly adopted kitten and my upcoming nuptials. Just two girls having a catch up really.
A guy comes into the beer garden with his laptop, his phone and a pint. Well dressed, English accent; he’s clearly had more than a couple. He sits at the next table. He tries to make eye contact for a bit but K and I are engrossed in cat talk. He interrupts, offers to buy us a drink; he’s on his own, and despite us saying, ‘oh look, we are catching a train shortly, sorry mate’, he persists. I feel sorry for him – he’s drunk, on his own and looking for some friendly company. I will regret this – I am always assuming people are harmless. (They aren’t.)
He buys a drink and sits down, asking (as he sits down) if he can join us. We chat for a few minutes. I’m not that annoyed, hopefully he will bugger off soon. He’s John, in his 30s, from Bristol and has just started a recruitment firm. This recruitment firm even has a jingle which he sings to us. K and I exchange glances. The guy’s a bit smashed but it’s funny, and who cares. It will be a funny story for later, I think to myself.
The conversation turns to his ex-girlfriend, a New Zealander with ‘fake tits’ and a ‘coke habit’. He loved her but it didn’t work out, he says. He congratulates me on my engagement, noticing the ring on my fourth finger, and then the slights begin. Unfathomably.
‘Look, love, I’d rather speak to your friend anyway. She’s far far better looking than you anyway’. He continues his drunk prattle, burping pint fumes into K’s face, as her ears turn red with embarrassment. I pick up my phone, my face stony, and ignore him, trying to stem the hurt feelings that are surfacing, reminding myself that’s an offhand comment from a stupid drunk idiot and it doesn’t really matter.
He stands his ground, and if he is picking up on any non-verbal cues right now, it doesn’t show. ‘Look, I didn’t mean to offend you, but she is! I mean, it’s just factual, I mean, that guy over there’ gesturing wonkily with his pint glass ‘is much better looking than me, and I’m fine with that, ya know? And your friend, here, sorry what was your name? Is far far better looking than you. It’s just a matter of opinion.’
K laughs, embarrassed, ‘Sure, but she did not say that to you. Bit rude isn’t it?’
‘Hey look love,’ he turns to me, ‘I’m sure your husband to be finds you beautiful. But you’re a bit on the plain side arentcha.’
‘No,’ I say, finding my voice wobbling annoyingly, ‘my fiancé is marrying me because of my personality, and people like me because of it, not because of how I look. And you are a complete fuckwit.’
I go to the loo, attempt to cool off. I can feel the blood settling in my ears. I eventually come back, not wanting anyone to see that I am actually a bit upset. I say to K we should sit inside. I don’t bother to look at him again. He is still on autopilot drunk, continuing his supposedly harmless tirade at us both. We get up, leave him, and sit inside. K finishes her wine.
I go, catch my train and try to analyse what happened. The voice in my head agrees with him though: ‘I’m plain and overweight, no matter what I wear’; ‘I really ought to lose some weight’ ; ‘maybe I should try new makeup’, ‘I have always been the ugly fat one in my group of friends,’ ‘oh I am so average, thank god BBF loves me anyway’.
K, knowing I am bit annoyed, texts ‘he was a complete dickwad’. I end up speaking to my lovely sister P about it. She makes a salient point. ‘What gives people the right to speak to women that way? You did nothing wrong, he was just an arsehole and you happened to be in the same place at the same time. And its typical sexist bullshit and we don’t challenge it enough.’
My mind casts back to the times when I have said ‘Sorry, I am talking to my friend’ when a guy has interrupted a conversation in a bar. I have been told ‘Don’t be so up yourself sweetheart, I wasn’t coming onto you’ or ‘you fat cow, I was only being friendly’ or the best one ‘no wonder you’re still single, lose the attitude love!’
So, it is still horrifying, how some men think that they can say shit like this to women. I would never interrupt someone’s conversation in a bar unless I saw that opening, and it was friendly and harmless. I certainly wouldn’t say to a person I just met I would rather speak to someone better looking – that’s cruel and unnecessary. I don’t know or care what propelled Bristol John to say those things, I don’t care if what he said was even true (K is a gorgeous woman, and I am fine with not being a supermodel) but I do know one thing: he felt quite entitled when he said it.
Ten years ago those comments would have really destroyed me. I get home to my lovely BBF who has made shepherd’s pie for dinner, and then we watch the cricket. I might find this story funny one day, but I kind of doubt it.